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Impenetrable science; Jimmy Wales back in the UAE

A frustrated reader of Wikipedia science articles.

John Timmer, senior science editor at Ars Technica, editorializes about the state of science articles on Wikipedia, writing "Wikipedia fails as an encyclopedia, to science’s detriment": "Disturbingly, all of the worst entries I have ever read have been in the sciences. Wander off the big ideas in the sciences, and you're likely to run into entries that are excessively technical and provide almost no context, making them effectively incomprehensible." According to Timmer, Wikipedia articles on many subjects are well-written and accessible to the lay reader. However, science articles are largely impenetrable to these readers. Of one typical example, he writes that "it descends into a mass of incomprehensible equations, sporadically interspersed with impenetrable jargon." Many of them appear to assume that the reader already has an advanced science background. "In other words, they're probably only useful for people who would never have to read them anyway."

Timmer posits that this is a negative influence on the state of science literacy, especially in the United States. He suggests that "one potential partial solution is to have more of the population feel that scientific knowledge is approachable, and scientific reasoning is intuitive", but inaccessible Wikipedia articles have the opposite effect: "They suggest that quantum mechanics is completely impenetrable. That evolutionary biology is just a bunch of jargon. That math involves little more than a bunch of random stipulations. More generally, they indicate that it's something that has to be left to the experts and is inaccessible to anyone without arcane knowledge." (Dec. 29) G

Jimmy Wales returns to United Arab Emirates

Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum holds several government posts and plays a key role in Dubai's finance and energy sectors

Jimmy Wales will deliver a keynote speech at Ericsson's Change Makers Forum in Dubai on January 10, as reported by Arabian Business and Emirates247. The event is held under the patronage of Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, a member of Dubai's ruling Al Maktoum family.

A year ago, Wales came under fire for accepting a $500,000 cash prize from Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and constitutional monarch of Dubai (see previous Signpost coverage). Critics pointed out the country's poor human rights record. According to Human Rights Watch,

(Dec. 29–30) AK

Is Wikipedia dying?

In The New Republic, Jeet Heer concludes that "Wikipedia is dying". Heer bases this on "a new academic paper" recently linked to on the blog of economist Tyler Cowan. The paper, "The Rise and Decline of an Open Collaboration System: How Wikipedia’s reaction to popularity is causing its decline", appeared in the May 2013 issue of American Behavioral Scientist and its lead author was Aaron Halfaker, senior research scientist at the Wikimedia Foundation. The paper was discussed in the September 2012 edition of the Signpost's Recent Research. Heer writes "The paper suggests the main reason is that, when it expanded rapidly between 2004 and 2007, Wikipedia responded by instituting restrictive policies that drove away eager new volunteers" and concluded by quoting the paper: "Over time, these changes resulted in a new Wikipedia, in which newcomers are rudely greeted by automated quality control systems and are overwhelmed by the complexity of the rule system." (Dec. 31) G

The first mention of Wikipedia on National Public Radio

Bruce Perens getting the word out

"First Mention" is a recurring segment on All Things Considered which looks at when the first time a now-ubiquitous word or phrase was used for the first time on National Public Radio. The latest segment discusses the first mention of Wikipedia, which occurred on January 17, 2003, two days after Wikipedia's third anniversary. Ira Flatow was interviewing open source advocate Bruce Perens, who told listeners about a website that was so new to them that he had to spell the name of it:

The English Wikipedia hit 100,000 articles four days later, on January 21, 2003. (Dec. 31) G

Phoebe Ayers speaking at the Erasmus Prize ceremony

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Andreas Parker

  • As someone said on the German page, how do we know it wasn't just some rich food? Even if Wikipedia did kill him, it might just have been by increasing his time sitting, same as any of us. Wikipedia:Articles for deletion/Goldenberg Institute doesn't look like much of a "cybermobbing". I see discussion at (archive translate) that mentions an ANI thread (original translate). I'm no expert at German, but is this different from the sort of thing that happens every day on ANI? Heart attacks are a common form of death ... sooner or later one of the people on an ANI thread is bound to have one. Wnt (talk) 16:51, 7 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • Editing WP can be stressful -- I often take a few days break from editing. IMO, the AfD on the Goldenberg Institute was wrong. Andreas Parker put a lot of effort into keeping that article. When it was deleted (by only a couple of votes) I can understand how it would literally break his heart. Raquel Baranow (talk) 17:19, 10 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
    • I hate to seem callous, but do we have conclusive proof that he actually died? I remember at least one instance where someone was banned from Wikipedia and then submitted a falsified notice of their own death. If Mr Parker did in fact die, then I'm very sorry. DS (talk) 16:51, 11 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
For the record, I just spent quite some time reading German Wikipedia discussions on this topic. There seems to be no evidence that Andreas Parker died, or that the person said to be behind the account ever lived. The HuffPo articles now lead to a "This article is being reviewed" page. In one instance a condolence message's author and signature didn't fit; after the Germans noticed the discrepancy, that message was removed. Of course none of this is evidence that Andreas Parker didn't die, but given that apparently some rather unsavory methods were employed by the organization that account was associated with, some skepticism seems to be called for. Huon (talk) 20:44, 11 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]

Is wikipedia dying?

  • Is Wikipedia dying? Sure. Wikipedia will die a slow but sure death if it constantly refuses to pay its editors even at a symbolic rate, expecting them to offer their service as volunteers for free, based on this Wikipedia management's mistaken fixation on not accepting advertisements as a revenue source that can be used to pay the editors and expand the site. Wikipedia just doesn't understand that advertisements don't necessarily jeopardise your integrity. They are there to keep you going as a viable enterprise. This is the largest website in the whole planet that I know that simply depends on free labour from tens of thousands of contributors and all it can come up with is a lukewarm campaign for donations from users. This is hardly enough as you realise by now. So yes, your death is long overdue as volunteer editors get fed up with working for you for years and years against nothing and users use it for free not even willing to make a token contribution to help its survival. If you want to survive long-term, start working as a business enterprise that uses its assets and strength to become more viable financially, build up alliances with other business enterprises and remunerate all those who contribute to you. werldwayd (talk) 09:01, 7 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • As Mark Twain almost said: "reports of my death are greatly exaggerated". Perhaps "maturing" would be a better term, but that is less eye catching. Also we know from broad experience that death is the inevitable consequence of life. All respect to werldwayd's long commitment to WP, but I found the tone above a bit off, the views lacking in evidence to back them up and the conclusion unpalatable. Ted Nelson has been pushing Project Xanadu for over 50 years and is still vaporware. As for Wikipedia it's success is all around us. I do think innovative ways of developing new relationships would be helpful, but I think the proposal put forward here shows a poor understanding of what viability means in a broader social context. Leutha (talk) 10:51, 7 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • I posted the image above in Leutha's space because I have little to say, except to ask "Where is the evidence that Wikiversity is dying?"--Guy vandegrift (talk) 19:56, 8 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • To werldwayd: Wikimedia management's resistance against ads? As far as I have seen the resistance is from us contributors. And why should you pay someone to do something they consider fun? Or if you started paying them, would that be leading to more quality content, or even more trash? The fact is that there are loads of wise people with buckets of time available and Wikipedia is some of the best way you can spend time, we just need to get the news out, not bite the newcomers and try to support they that have been around for some time. Ulflarsen (talk) 13:15, 9 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • You can rely on The New Republic's Jeet Heer for sensationalist (clickbait) headlines which are not supported by the reporting. His latest is this: The Republican Party is running the first X-rated presidential primary in American history. If only! Vesuvius Dogg (talk) 15:38, 9 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • Wikipedia has been in terminal decline since about 2003 according to the ever-tiresome rotating gallery of prophets of doom. The cataclysmic tidal wave of vandalism, departure of editors, exodus of readers, and/or spontaneous combustion of the servers is always just around the corner. However, despite this, In that time has grown to be the most comprehensive and widely-read encyclopaedia that has ever existed in the English language.
It's perhaps worth remembering how massively dominant Wikipedia is. There's a massive demand for encylopedia content online, and Wikipedia has something like 95% of the English-language market. Thousands of editors and millions of readers, no other comparable project, profit or non-profit comes remotely close.
Eventually, Wikipedia will be knocked off its perch (my guess is when Google or similar develop AI that can write better content than humans). But there's nothing to suggest that it's going to be anytime soon. --LukeSurl t c 15:26, 11 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
Wikipedia will survive, in one way or another, for as long as humans have relatively unfettered access to the Internet. The WMF may not survive, but the free license means that the database is mirrored in many more places than we know, and so is MediaWiki. If Wikipedia dies, someone will resurrect it, and then someone else, and someone else, and eventually one mirror will become more popular than the others, and it will be the new Wikipedia. Encarta is proprietary, Britannica is proprietary, Wikipedia is open. For this reason, the database will, in one way or another, survive. And isn't that what's more important? DS (talk) 15:58, 11 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]

Reproducing kernel (impenetrable science)

  • One problem with the "impenetrable science" is that many people, like the aforementioned John Timmer or doom prophets like Jeet Heer, are eager to criticize Wikipedia instead of joining it and fix at least what they have spotted. Wikipedia would benefit from more knowledgeable people to make science-related articles understandable. Brandmeistertalk 09:17, 7 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • John Timmer, senior science editor at Ars Technica, tells us that the article Reproducing_kernel_Hilbert_space is not understandable by anyone who doesn't comes with some background. Indeed, you have to know what is a vector space, then an Hilbert space, then a linear kernel before to understand the circumstances that allows an Hilbert space to possess a kernel that has the reproducing property. This is not a cabal to intimidate anyone, this is the fact that floor and walls should precede roof. Maybe this constraint is the reason why there are not only books, but also teachers and Universities. What a marvelous discovery! Pldx1 (talk) 09:28, 7 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • Actually, your comment suggests a fix. What if we had hatnotes on such articles explicitly stating, "To fully understand this article, a knowledge of vector spaces, Hilbert spaces, and linear kernels is recommended." That would help those (like myself) who understand some of those objects but not others, and would keep me from making the unpleasant discovery halfway through the article that I'm unqualified to understand the rest of it. The only problem would be the risk of OR. FourViolas (talk) 13:23, 7 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • The kernels used in RKHS aren't null spaces, but rather bilinear kernels, defining a correspondance from where all these letters have to be correctly specified and is assumed to be a positive-definite kernel. Nevertheless, the idea of hating an article by a list of prerequisites is surely a sound idea. Are you sufficiently bold to try it?Pldx1 (talk) 15:12, 7 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • This was the reason why Wikiversity was set up: to enable Open Educational Resources to be developed which would tie in with Wikipedia. It would be good if the project could be used in situations like this. Leutha (talk) 18:36, 7 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • Though I agree with the thrust of his comments, and have been involved in efforts by the Royal Society (UK Nat Academy of the Sciences) and Cancer Research UK very much targeted at this, show me someone who thinks "Disturbingly, all of the worst entries I have ever read have been in the sciences" and I'll show you someone who knows a lot about science and much less about the other things he looks at (biographies apart). This is the well-known effect of thinking the media generally cover things well, until they cover a subject you know something about, when their coverage reveals itself as shoddy and full of mistakes. Wikipedia is not much different, and an academic in the humanities is just as likely to think WP pretty good, except for his area. Johnbod (talk) 18:00, 7 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • I am sorry to tell it that way, but I am not sure that you have carefully read the Feynman's essay you have linked to. This essay is not mainly about the books themselves, but about how dysfunctional (and even corrupt) are the state commissions that are evaluating and choosing the books used in the states schools. Are you saying that, in Wikipedia articles, everything [is] written by somebody who [doesn't] know what the hell he [is] talking about, so it [is] always a little bit wrong because the WMF is so corrupt that it doesn't control seriously what is written here ? Pldx1 (talk) 18:22, 8 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • I am sorry you are so confused. Viriditas (talk) 20:54, 8 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • A simple remark about Wikiversity. Searching for kernel Hilbert space returns only v:Boubaker Polynomials/Wikipedia/en.wp AfD 3, i.e. a byzantine discussion about the notoriety of v:Boubaker Polynomials. Remember, this is not Wikipedia discussing "what sources are saying". This is Wikiversity pretending to discuss about Science and Research. But nobody here seems able to take a pencil and obtain that (for ):
What a great inovation! Why not
What would have said Pr. Feynman ? Pldx1 (talk) 22:34, 7 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
Interesting! Funnily enough that particular page was written completely by one user, who has since been more restrained following a period of being blocked. The user also identified himself as a former student of Pr. Feynman. What a small world! Those interested can look for themseles how all of this goes back to one persons view of a deletion of a wikipedia page itself created by a mathematcian (Boubaker themselves it is alleged, also blocked from Wikipedia). Wikiversity is not an encyclopedia, but a repository of OER, thus to "voice" a resource as "[t]his is Wikiversity pretending to discuss . . ." is perhaps to misunderstand the different ontologies involved. Also I agree that Wikiversity is not yet mature enough, but that may only change if sufficient people make it change. The point remains that instructional material is, by its nature, different from but related to encyclopedic material. For a better impression of Wikiversity please see Lua primarily by User:Dave Braunschweig. I think it would be better to build on what works, rather than focus on the idiosyncratic.Leutha (talk) 14:55, 8 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
I agree that wikiversity is lacking in materials on kernel Hilbert space. It is not exactly a topic that is in high demand there. The one hit is indeed not of much use for understanding anything about mathematics as it appears to be a learning resource to study decision making within a wiki community and coincidentally came up in a search because it uses the AfD as a case study. v:Boubaker Polynomials/Wikipedia The sole author of those pages was given a great deal of latitude to v:Wikiversity:BOLDly develop the resource. Seeing it for the first time just now it looks to me more like a personal essay about wp notability, than anything about science or mathematics. --mikeu talk 22:21, 8 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]

People have often remarked on the facts that (1) many knowledgeable people (subject matter experts in many fields) don't contribute (much/any) content to Wikipedia, (2) if they contributed more, the "impenetrable science articles" problem would be less salient, and (3) a major reason they don't contribute is that they can't get paid for the time they spend doing so. The latter is certainly true. Sometimes I can't help wondering, though, if there is also an element that they are afraid of what would happen to themselves and their ingroups socioeconomically, not just in money but in prestige and social power, if a "devastatingly clear and effective" Wikipedia developed—a Wikipedia with pedagogical brilliance pervading every science and technology article. It's almost a little something like "fear of a black planet"—am I crazy for suspecting that plenty of scientists, skilled professionals, and skilled tradespeople would prefer not to create an environment where the plebeians stop believing, as John Timmer said, "that it's something that has to be left to the experts and is inaccessible to anyone without arcane knowledge"? It's almost like a power trip or a strike action. In this hypothesis, withholding those content contributions is a move based on fear, in the grim hope that a devastatingly clear and effective Wikipedia won't develop—and if it does anyway (because of the people who do want to build it), "well at least it won't be because I stupidly contributed to my own/our own downfall" (so their thinking would go). This whole hypothesis seems so Marxian, and yet ... I have this strange feeling that I'm no longer naive enough about humans to not believe it's true. As for myself, the fact that I'm someone who is helping to improve Wikipedia indicates that I don't share their fear—but it's not simply because I naively think that a devastatingly clear and effective Wikipedia wouldn't disrupt some business models and prestige and social power/advantage. Yeah, it probably would. But I chip away at improving Wikipedia anyway because the other option feels shitty to me, too—even shittier. I don't like the current state of the art being that the free NPOV encyclopedia that we (humans) all heavily use isn't nearly good enough. I think that's even worse than the fact that if it got really good anytime soon, it would disrupt some things and present some new challenges. I just don't think that it would cause the sky to fall—I think we would all still figure out what the next business models and ingroup advantages would be. But meanwhile if you wanted to learn about X or Y, you could just go do it, without struggling with the impenetrability that John Timmer pointed out. Anyway, one last thought. User:Pldx1 was right to point out (above) that "Maybe this constraint is the reason why there are not only books, but also teachers and universities. What a marvelous discovery!" In other words, an encyclopedia by itself isn't a total replacement for textbooks, teachers, and schooling. Not even if it's devastatingly clear and effective. Quercus solaris (talk) 04:11, 8 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]

Dear User:Quercus solaris. Can you give us your expert opinion about the validity of the formula that I have stated above? If this formula is false, it would be a shame to use pedagogy or propaganda or anything else to further disseminate such formula. Pldx1 (talk) 10:30, 8 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]

Oh, I couldn't possibly, and wouldn't care to, because that's all Greek to me, and I've never heard of any of it until yesterday. I'm not a mathematician nor an engineer. My comment was about two things: the pedagogical quality of science and technology coverage on Wikipedia overall, including health science and health care, and (2) the related theme of (a) who is not contributing to Wikipedia although we wish they would and (b) why and whether Wikipedia may or may not be dying. (Regarding b, I doubt it. Maturing, but not dying.) Both of those (1 and 2) are featured in this "In the media" edition, and they're interrelated, which is what my comment explored. Quercus solaris (talk) 23:17, 8 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]

I am much in sympathy with Timmer's thesis. Ideally, insiders write articles for outsiders. Alas, my first WP efforts were in telecommunications technology, the field in which I was 41 years an insider. My colleagues liked them and said they clarified points that were badly expressed in other literature. However, outsiders didn't understand them, because in my decades inside, I had forgotten how to look at these things with outsider eyes. So, I did some repairs, but spent more of my time on matters of which I have some knowledge but not that a true insider. Bicycling, astronomy, history. When I broke a wrist, I looked up relevant articles and, ugh. Distal radius fracture at that time talked about "digital mobility" and "malreduction" pretty near the intro. As it happened, I knew enough of the jargon to understand that the former wasn't about carrying your computer, and latter wasn't about botching the job of making something smaller. So now, the first several paragraphs are somewhat comprehensible for someone who is curious about his broken wrist. But no, I didn't dejargonize most of the article, and to some degree that's because I don't understand the jargon myself. Pretty much every technical topic is like that. Once you get beyond the broadest, most elementary ideas, mostly it's insiders writing for insiders, in large part because they can't see the topic from an outsider POV. Jim.henderson (talk) 18:39, 8 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]

But this is an encyclopedia for generalists; the first rule for communication and for writing in general is know your audience. The problem is that many editors don't care about their audience. Viriditas (talk) 21:04, 8 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]

I played a role in allowing the formula to reside Wikiversity, but concede that I was mostly motivated by a desire to make the controversy go away. The internet at large is mostly junk if you count gigabytes of storage, but that does not imply that the internet itself is garbage. Likewise, most of Wikiversity (the vast majority in fact) is pretty bad. If you want something that is mostly good prose, write a book. Also: I have an idea for making Wikiversity a much better place. Unlike Wikipedia, we allow POV in mainspace, so why not exploit that fact to separate the sheep from the goats? Why not start a refereed electronic journal on a Wikiversity page? If necessary it will be a protected page, but such protection will almost certainly not be needed in the near future. Page protection is instead accomplished using permalinks. I think the easiest journal to maintain is one that focuses on teaching lessons that are routinely taught in the classroom. Everybody with a degree associated with such a topic has sufficient expertise to judge it. I will start the page as soon as three people with college degrees in physics or engineering volunteer to help. See Wikiversity as a haven for lone wolves --Guy vandegrift (talk) 20:46, 8 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]

In response to noticing the signpost story I (randomly) compared Superconductivity here to Britannica. I found that both had a similar level of difficulty for the lay person and both helpfully left the gory details in a separate article, like BCS theory. The difference was that Britannica had much less information on the theory, while wp had extensive sections on Details, Underlying evidence, and Implications. It could be that there is similar information at Britannica, but I had difficulty finding it there. Having said that, I have occasionally had an experience similar to Timmer. I just wouldn't say that it is common in the many science articles that I read and/or edit. What is the difference between Superconductivity and the more difficult Reproducing kernel Hilbert space? The answer is in the New York Times search engine. There are plenty of news stories about the applications of superconductivity. The average curious person might see a mention and look it up in an encyclopedia. There are 0 hits for the latter. There were a few mathematician obituaries that mentioned Hilbert space, but I wouldn't call this notable coverage. Picking such an obscure topic weakens the argument. Ironically, Wikipedia Year of Science 2016 is about to kick of improve communicating science to the public. --mikeu talk 21:37, 8 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]

Dear User:Mu301. Describing the space where the Schrödinger equation is to be applied as an obscure topic weakens your argument. If we use as the Bible about Superconductivity, we learn that superconductivity is what happens when "[it exists] a large energy gap between the lowest energy, superconducting state and the next possible, higher-energy configuration. That kept the electrons trapped in the superconducting state". And guess what is a state? It's an eigenvector of the Schrödinger equation, and therefore an element of some Hilbert state. Pldx1 (talk) 10:42, 9 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]

@Mu301 and Pldx1: Keep in mind that it is impossible to index technical subjects in a way that completely eliminates confusion. When I did plasma physics many years ago, I found most of the articles in Physics of Fluids to be incomprehensible. One of our professors told us that when you first read a physics article you don't understand it...Then you read the article's references and you don't understand them either. It's only when you go to the third level do you begin to understand the original. That is why I am not much concerned that most of the technical articles in Wikipedia or Wikiversity are incomprehensible. Moreover, while "bad" articles should be deleted whenever they are discovered, they do little harm if they stay. In fact, "bad" articles are less of a distraction because the "good" ones leave you left wondering if you should attempt to understand them.--Guy vandegrift (talk) 20:45, 10 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why there are no comedians with physics degrees. Viriditas (talk) 02:23, 11 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
Except Dara Ó Briain of course . . .Leutha (talk) 02:53, 11 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]
I meant, no true comedians. Viriditas (talk) 02:58, 11 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]

Ka/Ks ratio is "impenetrable"

One article that John Timmer mentioned in his Ars Technica as specially impenetrable is Ka/Ks ratio, which sounds obscure but is, he argues, important and ought to be readable by anyone. It isn't, even to those of us with biology degrees. Anyone care to help? Chiswick Chap (talk) 13:01, 16 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]


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